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TRANSCRIPT: Ambassador Kennedy at a Ceremony Commemorating the 80th Anniversary of PT-109
August 2, 2023

Kennedy IslandWestern Province, Solomon IslandsAs Delivered on August 1, 2023Good Morning.

Thank you, Archbishop Cardone, for presiding here today and for your invocation.

Thank you, Bishop Capelli, for your prayers and your work in building a spiritual community.

We are grateful to Premier Veo for your warm welcome to this beautiful province and to all the provincial and community leaders who are here.

We are honored by the presence of so many senior Solomon Island Government Officials: Minister Tanangada, who encouraged me to visit Gizo when we met last year in Honiara; Leader Wale; and Permanent Secretary Sivoro.

A special welcome to Sir Bruce and Lady Keithie Saunders of the Solomon Scouts & CoastWatchers Trust, and their patron the Honorable Peter Kenilorea Jr., who makes sure these stories get told.

I want to thank Taylor Ruggles for representing Secretary of State Tony Blinken here today, and it is always wonderful to be with fellow members of the diplomatic corps – thank you for joining us. We are grateful for your support and collaboration with our Embassy here.

I especially want to salute our Solomon Islands Charge d’Affaires, Russ Comeau. Congratulations on opening the new U.S. Embassy and thank you for setting the standard for our renewed presence in the Pacific.

I also want to thank all those who helped make our visit possible – the caretakers of this land as the sea levels rise; Jonathan Taisia and Nelson Manepura from the Ministry of Tourism; the Bamboo Band and the choir for sharing your music with us; and of course to James Kana for being master of ceremonies today.

And to the families of Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa – thank you for making the journey to be with us today.

My son and I are honored to be able to thank you in person for what your fathers did 80 years ago.

My father owed his life to their courage, their willingness to put themselves at risk, and to serve their country in the battle for freedom.

Their legacy is the one we honor today. I wouldn’t be here if not for them .

When I visited last year to commemorate the Battle of Guadalcanal, the sacrifices that so many young Americans, as well as Australians, New Zealanders, Japanese, and most of all, Solomon Islanders, left me with deep sadness but also a profound sense of gratitude.

They fought and died for a world based on the values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Their sacrifice was honored by those who returned home to create rules and institutions which have prevented such a conflict, lifted millions out of poverty, and protected the right of people and nations to choose their own futures.

I was struck by the deep connection between the United States and Solomon Islands. It is a connection which profoundly shaped the World War II generation – and which America has never forgotten.

I know because whenever I meet anyone from the Solomon Islands back in the United States, they thank me for America’s role in liberating their country, and then they tell me they were educated by a Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s wonderful to be with William Pryor, a former Peace Corps member, who continues to dedicate his life to this community after 23 years, and work to combat climate change – and we hope that many more Peace Corps Volunteers will return here soon.

That is the world we inherited and now it is our turn to pass it on to our children and grandchildren. Today we are expanding our work to remove the legacy of war – the unexploded ordnance which is still injuring too many.

We are committed to helping Pacific Island nations combat the existential crisis of climate change. You are on the front lines – and the U.S. is taking the biggest steps in our history, and in the world today, to address this challenge .

Today, I can’t believe I am standing in a place so far from home but so close to my heart.

This place made President Kennedy the man he was. It is where he first experienced the responsibility of leadership – the knowledge that the lives and safety of his crew depended on him. He risked his own life to save theirs. That became the way he lived his life .

And he never forgot the men who rescued him. They belonged to a complex network of brave and highly skilled men operating behind enemy lines to gather intelligence, provide information, conduct insurgency operations, and rescues.

They saved more than 500 men, and without their help, the Allies could not have won.

As President, my father kept the coconut they carried on his desk at the White House so he would never forget the debt he owed them. He invited them to his Inauguration – and the story ended there.

But what people don’t know is that fifteen years ago, it began again when I received an unexpected message that a World War II history buff had returned from a trip to Solomon Islands with a tribute from Eroni Kumana that he wished to have laid on President Kennedy’s grave.

It turned out to be a rare and precious example of “kustom money” that had been in the family for more than 100 years. Carved from a giant clam shell in ways that are not fully understood by western anthropologists, the shells are used in important ceremonies, including formal tributes to honor one’s chief.

I arranged for the shell to be placed at Arlington National Cemetery at a ceremony with our family – and then in the collection of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Today, it is on exhibition next to the famous coconut shell that my father kept on his desk.

That gesture of friendship taught me that our lives may be shaped by historical events and the times in which we live, but it is the connections we make to one another that define us and give our lives meaning. It made me want to come here one day though I never imagined it would really happen.

Now, Jack and I are here to renew the bond of friendship and to thank you for all that you and your families have done. We will carry this memory with us always and pass down the story that unites us across generations, space, and time.

As a small token of our gratitude, I would like to present you with the last two PT Boat pins that I have, that belonged to President Kennedy.

[Ambassador Kennedy presents the pins]